In pursuit of perfection

Within fashion, fine art and architecture lies a common goal — creating beauty

Seventeenth century artist Rembrandt came under much criticism for his realistic portrayal of the female form, often including belly fat. Above is his 1636 painting Danaë.
Seventeenth century artist Rembrandt came under much criticism for his realistic portrayal of the female form, often including belly fat. Above is his 1636 painting Danaë.
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According to Yasmine Djerbal, MA ’13, ad culture often determines what we find beautiful.
According to Yasmine Djerbal, MA ’13, ad culture often determines what we find beautiful.
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Chloe Van Landschoot, Nurs ’16, has been modeling since the age of 16.
Chloe Van Landschoot, Nurs ’16, has been modeling since the age of 16.
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Chloe Van Landschoot lost a modeling job because of her body.

Last August, she was told the day before a fashion show that she couldn’t walk the runway because they “didn’t want to use bigger bottoms.” It’s nothing new for someone who was once told by a modeling agency to lose 15 pounds.

“I’m not going to change my body for [agencies] to achieve something that I don’t want,” Van Landschoot, Nurs ’16, said.

The high fashion world typically uses models that look similar — slender girls with long hair and size 24 hips, she said. It’s the industry’s idea of perfection, often linked with what’s labelled as “beautiful.”

“It’s unfortunate that girls think they need to be that model,” she said. “There’s nothing unique about them.”

Though a certain kind of look has been the long-held standard for booking modeling gigs, it’s a pattern that’s recently come under criticism for its unrealistic portrayal of beauty.

This summer, Seventeen magazine pledged to stop digitally altering editorial models’ faces and bodies. It was in response to a campaign against airbrushing led by Julia Bluhm, a 14-year-old student tired of the standardized idea of perfection.

While the industry seems to be making some changes, Van Landschoot, who has been modeling since the age of 16, said there hasn’t been much of a difference.

“In actuality, it’s getting progressively worse,” she said. “You watch a runway show and they’re all probably 100 to 115 pounds. How is that beautiful?”

The methodical nature of booking models reflects an industry where uniqueness doesn’t have a place.

“You can compare models used in ad campaigns around the world, and realize that those Western ideals of light-skinned, ‘small nose,’ thin, high cheek bones, and long straight haired women are being projected as the new ‘esthetic norm.’” Yasmine Djerbal, MA ’13, told the Journal via email.

According to Djerbal, beauty is something that changes amongst different countries.

“Beauty is a very malleable concept that differs from one region to another, according to culture, traditions and society,” she said. “What is considered beautiful in North America is very different from beauty ideals in Sub-Saharan Africa, for example.”

Western ideals of beauty are often determined by consumer culture, she said. These ideas can stretch to other markets.

“With the globalization of mass media (ads, magazines) or the Hollywood movie industry, stereotypical Western-centric ideals of beauty are also exported to the rest of the world and are resulting in a more homogeneous notion of ‘beauty,’” she said.

Djerbal doesn’t believe in the saying that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

“I believe that beauty is in the eye of the media producers that dictate what society will accept as the norm/ideal,” she said.

The industry hasn’t always been like this though. Djerbal said shifting standards of beauty can be observed in models used in ads over the past decades.

“You will, for example, realize that fat-shaming is, historically speaking, a very new concept, and that for many years, and still in many cultures, is considered beautiful,” she said.

Beauty’s relation to physicality extends beyond the human body. Others see it in physical structures — like architectural models, for example.

“We’re searching for ideas of perfection,” said Albert Smith, a professor in Ryerson University’s department of architectural science.

He compares this to fashion models’ pursuit of depicting the perfect image.

“In architecture, as in many design fields, you really start looking for basic principles such as balance, order, repetition, symmetry — many of the basic design issues,” Smith said.

Using these principles, he said one can find a connection between truth and beauty. If a building can be clear in what it communicates as its purpose, Smith asserts, then it’s beautiful.

A 1994 study in the scientific journal Nature found that humans, as well as other species, found symmetrical patterns more attractive than asymmetrical ones. The study suggests that symmetry in humans and animals communicates that they’re healthy.

“It’s … a sort of natural beauty,” Stephanie Dickey, a Queen’s art history professor said.

Beauty has always been the goal of the artist.

“The depiction of the beautiful female body has been one of the most important subjects in visual art, in European tradition at least since ancient times,” she said. “If you can represent female beauty, then you have really achieved something important as an artist.”

In the female form, curves had been idealized in past centuries.

“Having a little bit of curvaceous feminine flesh was not a bad thing in the 17th century,” she said. “I think it sometimes has to do with economics.”

Centuries ago, curves were seen as a sign of prosperity.

She said in present-day times, where food is in abundance, fat is seen as a lack of self-control. In times where food wasn’t so plentiful, however, people with curves were seen as prosperous.

Dickey’s area of study focuses on 17th century art, a time when it was typical for a wealthy person to commission a portrait of themselves.

“Generally people have always wanted a portrait to show them at their best,” she said. “We can sort of assume that portraits express the ideal of the time.”

These portraits were often used as ways of falsely advertising beauty.

When royals were put in arranged marriages, the only glimpse of a bride-to-be was often from a portrait. It made for some surprising moments when the betrothed finally met face-to-face, Dickey said.

“Today we have Photoshop,” she said. “In the old days, you had a painter.”

The portrayal of beauty in elegant curves was something that not every artist glorified. Rembrandt, for example, came under much criticism for painting portraits that portrayed harshly realistic features, as opposed to the idealized standards of the time.

“He was criticized for making his female nudes look too flabby,” she said. “They looked like they still had garter marks on their legs or their bellies were sagging.

“He didn’t care. He just made them look that way because he thought they were beautiful just the way they were.”

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